So There

Fake Smiling Can Make You Feel Worse than No Smiling at All

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Sad woman with fake smile.

Demanding that a not-smiling person smile is condescending, annoying, often sexist, and definitely presumptuous. Also, though? It doesn’t help. New research suggests that smiling when you don’t feel like smiling can actually make you feel worse than not smiling at all.

That goes against conventional wisdom. Fake it till you make it, says everyone. Turn that frown upside-down. If you put a smile on your face (and what pretty face you have, you know?), you’ll feel better. Your fake smile will become a real smile, the thinking goes. And there’s science to back that up. Forcing a smile can actually decrease stress. Our brains do take cues from our bodies, so it makes sense that artificially manipulating those cues could make you for-real feel better.

But Northwestern University psychologist Aparna Labroo has found one very important caveat: fake-smiling works only if you’re the kind of person who associate smiles with genuine happiness. “If you are the kind of person who smiles more often when you’re trying to improve your mood, then it must signal to you that you’re actually not feeling good,” Labroo tells Co.Design. You were fine when you weren’t smiling. Now you’re compensating for something. You don’t know what you’re compensating for, exactly, but you must be — you’re fake-smiling, aren’t you?

So the moral here: everyone should stop telling everyone else to smile (take note, my 9th grade history teacher). That was the moral before — that has always been the moral — but now there is science. “Telling people to fake it until they make it, at least as far as their mood is concerned, might be something that actually makes them miserable,” Labroo concludes. Amen.